A Business Story: The Custom Die Maker

Continuing along the theme of showing what happens in business versus what people imagine happens in business, another story from my youth:

In the small job sheet metal fabrication business, (1) one often uses dies. Dies are special tools often custom built to punch a hole of a particular size and shape, or form a particular indentation, or both. Dies are used with punch presses or break presses – the piece to be worked is placed in the slot in the die, the press presses down on the top of the die with sufficient force to cause the hole(s) to get punched and the shapes formed.

Sheet Metal Component Dies
A typical sheet metal punch die. This is a small specialty die used to cut a particular notch or slot

If you are going to make more than a few copies of some piece that requires a non-standard (e.g., not perfectly round or square, or not a common size) hole or form, it’s usually economical to have a die custom made for the purpose.

So, after the manner of the free market, people set up specialty die making companies. Now, auto manufacturers or, indeed, any manufacturers that make millions of things out of formed metal either have their own die making teams within their companies, or order from large die making firms. But a little shop like my father’s would do business with correspondingly small die makers.

For the life of me (hey, it’s been 40 years!) I can’t remember the name of the guy who was one of our die makers. He had a one-man shop, where he had the specialized equipment needed to machine the specialized alloys used in die making. We’d get new dies made once in a while – by the time I worked at Astro-Fab, we had built up a pretty good inventory of custom dies, many of which got used over and over again as customers ordered more of the same pieces. This die maker had made many of them.

This die maker was a good, solid craftsman. There’s no way my dad would have used him if her were not. But, it turns out, he was a pretty terrible businessman. Steve, my dad’s chief engineer, the guy who would spec out any new dies and the guy who would estimate work, ordered new dies as needed.

Steve took to doing estimates for our die maker. In other words, when he ordered a die, he would make a educated guess about how much it would cost our die maker to make it. Then, if the die maker came in with a cost that was much too low – as he often did – Steve would instead tell him how much he needed to charge in order to make any money. Steve would offer to pay his supplier more than what the supplier was asking for.

This of course was not pure altruism: we wanted the die maker to stay in business. He served our needs, and Steve feared he would put himself out of business if he kept losing money on his bids. As a small businessman himself, Steve understood that risk all too well – it was his job with Astro-Fab to make sure that didn’t happen. My dad thoroughly approved of keeping the die maker in business.

But if wasn’t pure self interest, either. The sort of risk-taking, high-energy people who go start their own companies do, in my experience, feel a sort of camaraderie. My dad knew what it was like to start you own business and put yourself on the line every day, to experience the excitement of success and the fear of failure, often at the same time. He and Steve sincerely wanted the die maker to succeed.

In Walker Percy’s The Movie Goer, there is a scene where the protagonist, a private investment advisor/stock broker, meets another businessman on a train. They have nothing in common, really, except that they are both businessmen. But they see someone who understands them, someone facing the same challenges. They part on completely friendly terms, vowing to help each other out if the opportunity arises. And Percy’s character is sure that those feelings are true and honest, that they would help each other out.

In his weird, insightful way, Percy is both making gentle fun of his characters, and yet pointing out something profound: that even over something as trivial, in the big picture, as business, people can find a chance to be truly human.

  1. There are a fairly wide range of metal working companies, from giant steel mills down to super-specialized one-man precision shops. Astro-Fab, my dad’s shop, fell under the small job semi-precision sheet metal fabrication species. Semi-precision means we could get it real close – like, within a 1/100 of an inch – but were not, typically, getting much closer than that. For any greater precision, you’d want a machine shop or a specialized precision shop. Also, we didn’t do jobs that produced tens of thousands of items – that the ‘small job’ part. Larger shops could do those larger jobs more efficiently. Finally, we weren’t casting metal, but starting from standardized metal sheets (and beams, pipes, channels, etc.) – thus, the sheet metal fabrication part of the title.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “A Business Story: The Custom Die Maker”

  1. It is a beautiful, but seemingly more fragile, loyalty; this camaraderie between like-sized businessmen. I am warmed by it frequently and slightly dismayed to see “disloyalty” even for sound number (money) purposes.

    1. Oh, yea, very much. But the sympathy is there, and natural, but as subject to human shortcomings as any relationship.

      The reason I even mention it is that businessmen, even small-time operators like my dad, are seen by so many people as being inhuman, another species, when they are surprisingly human-like, in person.

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